Horry County, SC (January 25, 2024) – The Open Space Institute (OSI), together with the South Carolina Office of Resilience (SCOR) and the South Carolina Conservation Bank (SCCB), secured 219 acres of land that builds on the public-private collaborative effort to protect Waties Island and its neighboring landscape.
Five properties were acquired by OSI at a significant discount from siblings Olivia Boyce-Abel and Merrill Boyce, whose family has owned portions of Waties Island and the adjacent main and marsh land for more than a century. Through their efforts with OSI and partners, the family is protecting the land to achieve a wide range of environmental and community benefits.
"As more and more people move to South Carolina, protecting our state's environmentally significant properties like Waties Island becomes crucial to our future well-being," said Governor Henry McMaster. "Through this public-private partnership, we further our mission of safeguarding our natural resources for current and future generations to enjoy."
Waties Island, within sight of bustling North Myrtle Beach’s high-rises, boasts almost three miles of pristine beachfront that is critical habitat for rare and threatened wildlife such as the loggerhead turtle and migratory shorebirds. With its towering sand dunes, the island also protects inland neighborhoods by absorbing the brunt of ever-increasing storms, as was proven most recently during Hurricane Ian in 2022. The undeveloped mainland, known as Little River Neck, is equally important. It hosts quickly vanishing maritime forest that supports a great diversity of species and likewise absorbs floodwaters protecting nearby communities.
When viewed on a map, Waties Island and the surrounding landscape emerges as a jigsaw puzzle of individual parcels in different ownership.
Some of the first pieces of the conservation puzzle clicked into place in 1995 when Anne Tilghman Boyce donated her land to conservation and education in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and Coastal Carolina University.
Almost 30 years later, in 2022, OSI acquired a 260-acre tract at the north end of the island that was owned by Olivia Boyce-Abel.
“The 260-acre purchase generated incredible state-wide enthusiasm and momentum for this project,” remarks Maria Whitehead, Ph.D., OSI’s vice president of land for the Southeast. “Today, we are delighted to announce with our partners the acquisition of another 219 acres.”
Of the five parcels most recently purchased by OSI, an additional 22 acres on Waties Island proper will be combined with the recently acquired 260-acre property to become a South Carolina Heritage Trust Preserve.
Four tracts, comprising approximately 197 acres on the Little River Neck mainland and northern marsh islands, are anticipated to become a new state park.
“The effort to put the latest properties together has been tremendously complex but equally rewarding,” continues Dr. Whitehead. “I cannot overstate my gratitude to all our state partners and especially to the family. Waties will be a fitting legacy – a testament to the Boyce family’s generosity and devotion to a beloved landscape.”
"It is an honor and a gift to be part of the conservation of Waties Island,” said Olivia Boyce-Abel. “It was always my intention to preserve Waties Island and as much of the surrounding land as possible for all of South Carolina. My hope is by my saving my land it will inspire others to do the same. I am overjoyed and grateful to see the continued preservation of this beautiful pristine barrier island and the land around it.”
“I have found it a pleasure to work with OSI and partners to protect land that means so much to me and my family,” said Merrill Boyce. “Waties Island is a special place for many reasons, particularly its ecological value and the critical role it plays in sheltering communities from storms. Conserving the land ensures that it will be safe from development and remain unspoiled for generations to come. It will continue to play its critical role.”
Together, the conserved lands also complement Coastal Carolina University’s education and research programming on the adjacent Anne Tilghman Boyce Coastal Reserve, which was named for Merrill and Olivia’s mother. Coastal Carolina University’s long and favorable history with the Boyce family in the realm of environmental education and conservation is of great benefit to the partnership.
OSI purchased the most recent five properties with a reimbursable grant from SCCB with funding directed through SCOR. OSI will hold the properties until they can be acquired by the state of South Carolina.
Significantly, this marks the first use of SCOR’s Disaster Relief and Resilience Reserve Fund for planning and implementing nature-based solutions to reduce flood risk, which includes land purchases. The Fund was created to support projects that reduce and/or mitigate the impact of flooding on South Carolina’s communities.
“Protecting Waties Island and conserving the mainland at Little River Neck are ideal uses for the Resilience Disaster Relief and Resilience Reserve Fund,” said Ben Duncan, Chief Resilience Officer and Agency Head at SCOR. “As storms grow stronger and more frequent, it is imperative that we protect land that can absorb floodwaters and shield communities from some of the harshest impacts of extreme weather. SCOR is proud to work with the Boyce family, the Open Space Institute, and the South Carolina Conservation Bank to conserve this land and protect inland communities.”
“We often hear that a property is ‘one-of-a-kind’ but Waties Island truly is unique in so many regards,” stated Raleigh West, Executive Director of the SCCB. “As the largest, undeveloped privately-owned island on South Carolina’s coastline, in eyesight of North Myrtle Beach, there really isn’t anything like it. I believe this is our moment in time to secure this fragile ecosystem for the benefit of the public.”
Acquisition of the initial Boyce-Abel 260-acre property was made possible in part by support from SCCB and Sustain SC’s Land and Water Action Fund. Through the fund, both Google and the Waccamaw Community Foundation contributed $500,000 in grants to OSI for the acquisition.